Vivid Art and Island’s Best History Tour
By Terry Card
There are some people who, for whatever reason, are just larger than life. Much larger!
Looking across the street as I neared the G. Lee Gallery, sitting at an outdoor round table with his snakeskin cowboy boots propped languidly on an opposite chair, sat George Douglas Lee, cousin to Robert E. Lee, twelve generations removed. He stood to greet me and I immediately recognized the famous Galveston eccentricity of one of its native sons. Dressed nattily in vest and a Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band style coat, wearing a huge grin, he pumped my hand and invited me into his gallery, inhabited by his two, ever-so friendly, Pekinese dogs, his own art and the art of other local painters.
I had arranged to meet with George for an anticipated 15 to 20 minute interview. What resulted was a two hour conversation with one of Galveston’s true characters. This is a gregarious man whom you feel could become your friend for life. Having left Galveston as a young man to make his fortune, his many interests resulted in a diversity of careers including rock and roll singer/songwriter, with his own band in the 70’s and 80’s, manager of the graphics department at Brown & Root, Inc., his own advertising business, GD&L MediaWorks, owned the Electric Theatre in Sugarland, then moved back to Galveston in 2000 for a job at UTMB that didn’t materialize due to State budget cuts. Returning to Galveston, he pursued a career as an artist, internationally published playwright, screenwriter and host of the Electric Theatre Radio Hour.
After coming back home to Galveston, he became much more interested in her history than he had in his youth. He began reading every book on Galveston’s history he could lay his hands on, and then went into the streets interviewing and talking to many old timers, seeking to understand the personal side of this intriguing city. He is a huge Civil War and history buff and Galveston is rife with fascinating Civil War tales.
Deciding to follow his passion for Civil War history, he and his wife Brenda hooked up with a famous Civil war Tour Guide by the name of Doc Gilmore and about one and one-half years ago, jumped headfirst into an extended tour leading from Gettysburg down through Lexington.
During the tour, George realized that Galveston did not have anything like it – and he decided that this was a great opportunity. Thus was born what is labeled as the ‘Island’s Best History Tour.’
It is not dates and locations, dry historical fact, or boring recitations of the ‘Leading Citizens of the time.’ No – this is an energized insight by a garrulous story-teller of the untold tales of the native Indians, the Karankawas, the fallacies of the discoverers and the indiscretions of the founders.
Those folks who have taken his tour have discovered a world of con men, swindlers, crooks and misfits. These were the heroes and founders. A city of firsts – first Post Office, first Police Force, first Volunteer Fire Department, followed by a very long list of firsts, Galveston was referred to as the ‘Wall Street of the South,’ a very wealthy city, and at one time, the largest city in Texas. And then raged ‘The Greatest Storm,’ which changed Galveston forever!
George Lee is the only Tour Guide in Galveston who has been featured on a History Channel Documentary. During his tour, guests experience the sights and sounds on the History Channel video of America’s Greatest Disaster – the 1900 Storm – which killed at least 6000 people. Comparisons on the video with hurricanes Carla and Ike, two other storms that devastated Galveston, are chilling.
He regales his customers with tales of the ‘Free State of Galveston,’ an era dominated by the Maceo brothers and their famous Balinese Room which extended out into the Gulf. The Balinese Room hosted many celebrities of the time, including Phil Harris, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller and Harry James. It also was the center of the Maceo gambling activities, frustrating the authorities with its disappearing gaming tables, which were folded into the walls and floors when the raid alarm sounded.
When I asked George what he considers the highlight of his tours, he responded that for him, it occurs when he observes his customers responding delightedly or tearfully to his stories of the history of Galveston. One man gave him $100 for a $40 tour and when George told him he would give him his change back at the Gallery, the man said, “the tour was worth $200 George, and if I could afford it, I would gladly give it to you. Keep the $100 and thanks for an extraordinary experience!”
G. Lee Gallery
2215 Postoffice Street, downtown Galveston
Call (409)370-7350 for reservations.
Gallery Hours: Thursday – Friday: 2-5pm, Saturday: 12-6pm; Sunday: 12-5pm
Show times: “America’s Deadliest Disaster” Sundays at 4 pm.
Admission $5 for movie only;
90 minute Tour: Adults: $20; Children and Seniors $15